Saturday, April 7, 2018

album review: '2012-2017' by a.a.l (against all logic)

So when I covered Nicolas Jaar's album Sirens a few years back, I found a lot more to like than I had initially expected. I was going in off the excellent record Space is Only Noise which hit an odd cross-section of electronic music that was too uniquely compelling to ignore, but Sirens was a different sort of animal entirely, a politically themed and intensely potent warning sign against coming political calamity, which felt all the more starkly relevant in 2016. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of getting to it late and covering it in the aftermath post-November, and thus I couldn't help but feel like the warning had come too late, which I think colored how much the record resonated with me in comparison to Space Is Only Noise.

And I think it might some of those residual feelings that have kept me from really diving headfirst into 2012-2017, even despite the avalanche of critical acclaim this collection of tunes has gotten. Granted, part of my reticence has been that I'm not normally one to talk about loose compilations of songs - and Jaar is the sort of artist to deliver potent themes in his electronic music, so while seeing him release this under a different name made sense, it wasn't something I felt in a hurry to cover. But folks have consistently voted it up the schedule and it has received a ton of acclaim from critics I respect and I'm not going to deny I was curious, so what the hell - how is 2012-2017?

Okay, here's the thing: even though it might not seem like it, there were a lot of factors that were stacked against this record, even if they're just stupid mental hang-ups I had. As I said, collections of singles that don't exactly have much sense of flow or transitions or even much internal continuity can get frustrating, and to go further, this brand of traditional house isn't the sort of electronic music to which I tend to gravitate - not saying there isn't quality in this subgenre, but more that I'd rarely seek it out. So when I take all of that into consideration, when I can still come here and say this is a pretty great record and one I found incredibly easy to listen to and like, that'll likely speak far more to its quality, because this was a fair bit of fun!

Now I'll admit, again, house music is a little outside of my personal wheelhouse - if you're looking for a critic who likely gets the intricacies of this genre more than I do, go check out The Wonky Angle, he does electronic music reviews and he can likely speak to the larger style with more context than I can. But coming from a stronger backdrop of Nicolas Jaar's work... this record can feel oddly paradoxical to me, most notably when it comes to his usage of sampling. On earlier records, whatever samples of melody or vocals are often chopped to fragments or blended in a way to flesh out the background or add some meat to skeletal beats, but 2012-2017 with its heavier, slightly blown-out scratchy percussion takes much larger sample cuts, often preserving single whole melodic phrases from funk, soul, or disco to supplement the groove, almost to the point where the songs become more distinctive for permutations of the sample than the larger collage of sound. If only on that basis alone, this record might seem more conventional in its composition, but Jaar's fondness for more defined texture gives many of these mixes a much more tactile feel, especially with every crackling, offkilter blast of static or live drum pickup. 

And really, this records lives and dies based off of how strong those grooves are, especially when there are textures being chosen that might not always flatter the main sampled melody. I'll admit a certain skepticism for songs like the opener 'This Old House Is All I Have' with how the deep, blown-out beat can overlap or partially muffle some of the vocal line, but even those jagged elements of fuzz play into a pretty killer disco groove with just enough of an edge to really stick. And when this record can hit that precise balance it's damn near golden, from the abundance of melodic texture in the more complex percussion, sample, and rounded bass groove of 'I Never Dream' to the eclectic, jagged roil of 'Cityfade' with the wispier sample and pianos playing off the handclap, to even the trumpet blasts, blubbery synth and guitar flourishes that characterize 'Now U Got Me Hooked' with a killer groove. And let me stress, even when this record doesn't quite connect the grooves are all textured and plenty interesting in their own right, even with songs like 'Some Kind Of Game' that seem to play closer to a very traditional house progression in the synth and piano - the issues come when the grooves aren't as melodic or developed, or in some cases feel outright compromised by Jaar's more sporadic experimentation. In some cases it works brilliantly, like the reserved melodic swells from horns and keys on 'Such A Bad Way' where when the vocal sample starts screaming it's a fun moment... but then you get 'Flash In The Pan' with its shredded blasts of static and shrill grainy whirs that complimented nothing and didn't bring much of a melody, and when it's followed by 'You Are Going To Love Me And Scream' with more blown out but brittle static, you find overly long progressions and textures that don't flatter the sample or any significant groove. This is where progression does matter, because while 'Rave On U' does serve as a solid endpoint thanks to the major keys and the great bass melody, the album definitely drags in its final third, and while I wasn't crazy about the squonky blaring tones on 'Know You', it was the shot of life after the minimalistic 'Hopeless' that the back half of the record could have definitely used. 

But again, it's hard to complain about sequencing when the record really is pretty damn strong - even when the seams of Nicolas Jaar's style clash with traditional house, it's never not interesting, which tends to be my most scathing indictment of a lot of the house music I've heard. And the fact that even despite some moments running a tad long or with tones I wasn't crazy about I could easily see myself dancing to a full spin through of this record... hell, it gets the job done for what it is. As such... man, I was on the fence with this for a while whether to call it outright excellent, but I'm going to lean into the positive and give this an extremely light 8/10, with much more of a recommendation for those house fans looking for a challenge, this'll be right up your alley. For me... a tad less so and not better than Space Is Only Noise, but Nicolas Jaar does this sound justice, and yeah, worth checking out.

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